By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
The rookie battle is already underway, but with Joey Logano and Scott Speed posting modest results in the first two races and with last year's freshmen bloodied and beaten by the sport, reinforcements are coming.
This week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Max Papis joins the NASCAR ranks after a successful career in Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) that produced three victories and 22 top-fives in 112 starts. He hopes that his fate is not the same as last year's open-wheel defectors -- Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier and Jacques Villeneuve -- who all failed to complete their first seasons.
Papis' team has a different approach than those three drivers, however. Instead of stretching their resources to the breaking point, the No. 13 Germain Brothers Toyota will attempt to run only half the schedule in order to put a greater emphasis on running well in the races for which they feel they have the best chance of qualifying for.
The team tried to get a little experience at the end of 2008 but missed races at Texas and Homestead by a wide margin. In stark contrast, they easily timed their way into the field this week for Sunday's Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"I'm so happy; it's an awesome day," Papis said after qualifying his car 26th. "We made the show (for the) first time on an oval, and it just proved the perseverance pays off."
To say the least, last year's rookie class was disappointing. And in 11 of 36 races, first-year drivers who were not competing for the Rookie of the Year honors beat the official contenders. Brad Keselowski was one of those spoilers.
Keselowski was fastest of the true "go-or-go-home" drivers for the Shelby 427 -- and he is another tardy freshman. Even though he is not officially contending for rookie honors again this year, Keselowski will run too many races in 2009 to be eligible for the prize in future seasons, and his part-time program just might provide him with some of the best cars in his class.
In seven races this season, including this week at Las Vegas, he is competing in a fifth Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He also will run nine more races in the James Finch-owned Chevrolet. He was originally scheduled to run 10 races for Finch but failed to qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500.
With Hendrick power under the hood, Keselowski lines up 13th for Sunday's event, which not only places him well in front of all the other first-year drivers, it also showed more speed than some of the favorites to win the Shelby 427, such as Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon.
"It's the same Cup car I had at Texas and Homestead (last season)," Keselowski said. "We ran very well at Texas with this car."
That race was Keselowski's Cup debut and he finished an impressive 19th, which again was the best among all first-year drivers.
This same car "ran good in practice at Homestead until I put it in the fence and kind of hurt it," Keselowski continued. Even though he was disappointed with his performance in the Ford 400, he finished 23rd.
This is Keselowski's best chance to shine. In both starts last year, he qualified well back in the pack in the 30s, and this week he will get some experience racing among a faster breed of car in the top 15.
With teammate Mark Martin scheduled to pare back to a part-time schedule in 2010 and then retire in 2011, Keselowski has his eye on the No. 5 car.
"Every week is a tryout," Keselowski said. "I look at this situation when I woke up in the morning today and when I wake up in the morning tomorrow or when I wake up in the morning on Sunday, that this could be my last opportunity to prove myself so I better make the most of it."
Papis was not nearly as successful in his handful of attempts last year, having failed to make the race every time he tried to qualify on an oval.
"We tried a couple races last year to get our feet wet in this thing," Mike Hillman, Papis' crew chief, said. "Taking all the testing away this winter really put us behind the eight-ball with Max being a (Rookie of the Year candidate)."
With testing banned by NASCAR on its sanctioned tracks this year, strategic alliances are the cornerstone to a new team's success. "Our engineering support from Toyota and from Michael Waltrip really has paid off, and me personally and my team learning how to use those tools," Hillman said.
The man behind the wheel, Papis, sees it a little differently.
"I think it is a matter of heart, not a matter of cars," Papis said.
Then, breaking into a huge smile, he added, "With a little bit more experience you can go a couple of tenths faster, but, come on, we're in the show. That's the first goal."
While Keselowski is looking to impress his car owners, Papis has a more basic goal in mind. When the green flag waves on Sunday, he'll put the "pedal to the metal and just see what I can do."
Racing is a zero-sum game, and Keselowski and Papis qualifying their way into the field sent two of the early Cinderella stories home.
After dramatically racing their way into the Daytona 500 and qualifying on speed last week, Scott Riggs and his Tommy Baldwin-led team packed up and headed back to Charlotte early this week.
Likewise, the self-owned team of Jeremy Mayfield will miss his first race of the season. It appears the glass slipper is suddenly on another foot.